Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Yardstick for "Show, don't tell"


Everyone who’s read a how-to-write book has heard it: “Show, don’t tell.” But, what, really, is the difference between showing and telling? If a story’s protagonist implements a technical procedure step by step, is the author “telling” by walking the reader through, or “showing” the procedure through the character’s eyes?

The answer is the sort of helpful, precise definition that leaves beginning writers grinding their teeth: “It depends.” Or, “If it bores the reader, it’s ‘telling.’” As if anyone was ever capable of judging how much she bores others.

Fortunately, there are better yardsticks for judging whether your fiction “tells” too much.

It’s “telling” if a character gives extensive attention to something s/he already knows. (Note that readers subconsciously relate every word of text to the viewpoint character’s thoughts.) While tying running shoes, are you thinking, “I adjust the tongue, I pull the laces tight, I loop one lace over and through…,” or is your attention on where you’re going after tying them? It’s the same with driving or waste disposal; only beginners concentrate on each step. If your fictional computer expert effectively recites every keystroke involved in operating a word processor, it’s obviously for the readers’ benefit and you’ve hurt their ability to enter fully into your character’s world.

It’s also “telling” if one character explains to another something they both know. “As you know, Tom” expositions are as common as clichés, and about as interesting. If you must have one character explain the story’s history or technology in extensive detail, whomever s/he is talking to (besides the reader!) had better be genuinely ignorant of the facts—and you’d better intersperse regular dialogue exchanges or significant action with the paragraphs of explanation.

It’s usually “telling” if it continues for more than half a page without dialogue—or without a change of speakers. The exceptions are single-character scenes and intense action, in which case:

It’s “telling” if you ignore a viewpoint character’s feelings—or if you spell them out. “Lungs heaving, Ryan struggled toward the glimmer of light” lets the reader feel Ryan’s fatigue and desperate hope; “Ryan was exhausted, but he knew he had to make it outside” reads more like a plan-your-exercise-program manual. This means of “telling” is at least as common in more mundane scenes: “Jason was furious”; “Denise thought her heart would break”; “Morgan couldn’t stop worrying about Amy.” Such writing is as bland to read as a thesaurus; it does almost nothing to move the story forward or to distinguish characters as individuals. We all get angry, but the Jason who expresses anger by hurling a cracker box at the sales clerk’s head is a different person from the one who forces himself to smile even as he feels his back tensing and his blood pressure rising.

When fiction “tells” too much, readers needn’t resort to such dramatic methods of expressing annoyance. They simply close the book and write off the author.

Katherine Swarts, Spread the Word's founder, owner, and head copywriter, has been writing professionally for more than ten years—and reading voraciously for as long as she can remember. She has a master’s degree in written communications from Wheaton College (IL), and has published over 100 articles.

Katherine has a bachelor's degree in English from Austin College in Sherman (TX), and a master's degree in written communications from Wheaton (IL) Graduate School. She has also studied with the Institute of Children's Literature, which publishes the monthly newsletter Children's Writer; two annual market guides; and an annual writer's yearbook.

Katherine is also a writer of Christian and inspirational poetry.

Visit her blog:

*Joylene's being interviewed over at Novel Works today.*


  1. Hooray! I wish I had a dollar for everytime I have heard--"show--don't tell". What a great write! I'm saving this one to read later too!!

  2. I'm honking your horn, Katt. You "show, don't tell" pretty awesomely, yourself. Can't wait to add your next book to my shelf.

  3. thanks, Katherine. Your take on show don't tell helps. You explain it much better than most.

  4. That "show, don't tell" phrase is so well known that you'd think we'd all be able to do it without a problem but it's strange how the telling creeps in anyway. Good article, thanks.

  5. Hi Sam. Yes, Katherine's explanation doesn't leave any doubt. I appreciate writers who know their stuff and can actually help you understand the inner workings to good writing.

    Thanks for dropping by.

    Hi Carol. I'm with you. Katherine's take on show, don't tell reinforces my need to cure myself of the habit. I still tell too much. But I'm jotting down her examples so I can catch myself before my critter does.

  6. Joylene, thank you for introducing Katherine and her fine works. I'm awed and inspired. I'm checking out her sites next.

  7. hi Marina. Thanks for the comment and the support.

  8. Thanks, Kathryn, Sam, Carol, and Marina, for your words of praise. It's an honor to be featured on a blog that draws so much comment.

  9. It's a honour having you here, Katherine. See you tomorrow.

  10. Thanks for explaining this in such simple terms, something that I can actually understand. I gather you'll be back tomorrow? I'll see you then.

    terry tomlin

  11. I don't usually leave a comment. Sorry, it's just too damnn hard to come up with something origin. But I had to thank you, Joylene, for giving so many good writers a place to share their experience and advice. Thank you for your generosity. And thanks for your article, Katherine.

  12. Thanks, Terry. Hope you liked "Getting Readers to Bite into Your Story" (today's article) as much.

    JacktheMac: You're welcome. I also like to read writing articles as much as I like to write them.

    Note of clarification: My inspirational blog also has a separate address at


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